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Comfort women: Japan again provokes anger in Korea

The flaw in logic of the Ramseyer article and the way it is interpreted is:

"There were blue cars I saw on the highway." 

"Therefore, all cars are blue." 

"There were prostitutes recruited to serve in comfort stations." 

"Therefore, all women in comfort stations were prostitutes." 

 Mark Peterson 2

By Mark Peterson
Professor emeritus at Brigham Young University

Why doesn’t Japan ever learn? Or do they purposely provoke Korean anger for some kind of unseen ulterior motive. Whatever the reason, the ugly picture of Japan defending its role and actions in World War II raises its ugly head again already in 2021.

This time, planned or unplanned, the poke in Korean eyes with a sharp stick comes from a Harvard Law School professor — the Mitsubishi Professor of Japanese Legal Studies — J. Mark Ramseyer, a man who was raised in Japan, and who two years ago was awarded the "Rising Sun" medal. While not a Japanese citizen himself, he is a man who represents Japan as much as anyone in or out of Japan can, plus he now carries the imprimatur of the Mt. Everest of universities, Harvard Law School. His article in a law journal has needlessly wrangled the raw emotions of Koreans once again.

One of my young colleagues who recently completed her MBA here in America, wrote me and asked me to write a response to the "Harvard statement" — that’s how it comes across, like it or not. She said a Harvard PhD should respond to the article and then she said she was so upset that she could not sleep "last night" and she repeatedly found herself crying about it. I received several other requests that I respond to the article. It is an emotionally raw issue that Japan keeps insisting on revisiting — they keep picking the scab so that it never has time to heal.

Let me begin with a story. When I lived in Korea in the late 80s, in Busan, we had a maid who spoke with a thick dialect. It was a little bit inscrutable, because it was clearly Gyeongsangnam-do Province, but not Busan, and it had touches of Japanese and even some Chinese. She was in her late sixties; born in the 1920s and would have been a late teen at the time of World War II. In asking her history I found she was born in western Gyeongsangnam-do Province, but as a pre-teen she was sent to live with her uncle in Harbin, China, then under the control of Japan. Her uncle was an officer in the Japanese military, and her father deemed it safer for her to be in the home of a Japanese military officer. Safer from what? They feared she could be kidnapped off the streets or otherwise forcefully recruited to serve the Emperor in the war effort by conscription in the "comfort women corps."

Was her fear — and her family’s fear that was sufficient to send her 1,000 miles away to live with an uncle — justified? It was not unique. All over Korea, there were stories of women being forced, or tricked, or trapped, by one means or another into serving in the comfort corps. One heart-breaking story is of a loyalist high school teacher who heard of the "comfort corps" and its description as a kind of "USO," "tea-and-crackers" organization, where women could do their part in supporting the war effort. The high school teacher recruited his academically top five girls, as an honor, to go off to serve; only to find later how naive he was when he understood the reality of the comfort corps.

The problem with the article by Harvard Law School’s Mitsubishi Professor is that it does not deal with the greater issues of how women were recruited by force or trickery, but only deals with an arcane legal topic that only lawyers should read. He focuses on the legal structure of the brothel system, and makes the case that there were women who were indeed prostitutes who were recruited for the empire’s overseas, battlefront, "comfort stations." He doesn’t deal with the women who were forced to join, who may have been kidnapped, or tricked into joining. Without giving a balanced account of how many were involuntarily "dragooned" — he criticized the use of that term in an earlier version of the paper — he only deals with the "legal" structure of the government brothels. I don’t think the professor intended to say or even imply that it was all well and good, but the austerity of the legalese and the sterility of the law school discourse was such that the text was devoid of all emotion for the women involved in these “contracts” that he was writing about.

The problem is not a new take on the legal brothels of wartime Japan. The problem is that the two governments, and the two people — of Japan and Korea — are on completely different standing on the issue. Korea sees the article as one more stone in the wall of Japan’s vile treatment of Korea during the Japanese occupation of Korea. Japan is a "far-country mile away" from showing the sympathy and contrition that a war criminal should show. Japan is not Germany. Germany makes no defense for their war crimes — the Nazis, Hitler, a passive supporting public — are all condemned. Always. By all but the most right-wing element of Germany. Not so Japan.

Repeatedly Japanese officials (former Prime Minister Taro Aso, the Consul General to Atlanta, the Mayor of Osaka, et. al) are quoted as saying "they were prostitutes, weren’t they?" Herein lies the rub. The "Harvard article" — it dismays me to phrase it such, but that’s the way its treated in Korea — gives fuel to the fire. Yes, it talks about the legal issues of legal prostitution in legal, state-sanctioned brothels, as a legal issue. It’s as if the women did not exist. It’s only the law that’s being discussed. Antiseptic. Aloof. Disinterested. But it comes across the news wires as a new hot poker to jab in the eye of Koreans.

Sensitivity is not to be found in the legal treatise. Political sensitivity is not the concern of the author or of the journal. "Just the facts, ma'am," like Joe Friday. But the journal and its content reinforces the insensitivity of the Japanese side, and heightens the sensitivity on the Korean side, for now, it’s not just "the lying, deceiving Japanese" it’s Harvard that is "against us."

Timing is everything, as they say. The Harvard article deals with a place and time where prostitution was legal. The author writes of legal prostitution in Japan and in Korea at the time. It is presented as an academic study of a legal issue at the time, as if it might have been dealing with buying real estate or contracting for building a house. That was then; this is now. When the Prime Minister or the Consul General says, "Well, they were prostitutes, weren’t they?" those officials are using today's value system to denigrate the “comfort women." They are only prostitutes. It’s a way of denying that they were victims. The Harvard article backs them up, unemotionally — it was a contractual arrangement. Legal. Cold. Official. Nothing to be seen here; move on.

The Harvard article makes no pretense of telling the story of the comfort women in any comprehensive way. It does not mention the Rape of Nanjing where the city was raped or destroyed by the Japanese army for its dogged resistance in one of the worst battles of World War II, but it was also raped, literally by soldiers on a rampage of raping and killing in the aftermath of the battle, for which war crime the Japanese government responded by bolstering its comfort stations as a means of trying to keep soldiers in line sexually. You can't understand the Japanese fostering of "comfort stations" without understanding the Rape of Nanjing. It's one war crime in the place of another.

The relationship of the women to the brothel is explained as a 'matter-of-fact' legal arrangement. It mentions incentives to assure the women performed their duties well. But it does not describe the brothel owners as "pimps" who as a matter of course brutally beat the women for taking time off, or for offending a customer, or for contracting a disease, or for getting pregnant, or for no reason at all, just to keep them in line. The brutality of the system is only hinted at by the article’s phrases "difficult" or "dangerous." Here, too, the austerity of the legalese obfuscates the raw dehumanization of comfort stations.

It did not mention the women of the Philippines who were also forced to serve the conquering Japanese soldiers. Nor does it mention the women of China. Nor Southeast Asia. Nor the Dutch women, some of whom were mothers with children who were captured in the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia, today). No, the article, an austere piece of legal scholarship, looks at contracts — contracts between prostitutes and the Japanese agencies. It does not attempt to describe the situation of Japan’s criminal exploitation of women during the war.

But as such, by looking at only one segment of the issue, the article does a great disservice. Yes, a legal scholar can write about legal issues in a time of war, a time past, a time irrelevant as a legal precedent for today’s issues. But when the implications of the article are the denigration of the lives of the few remaining comfort women, the denigration of the memory of the deceased comfort women, the stoking of the flames of distrust and hatred between two neighboring countries that have seen so much exploitation of one by the other, the revival of ill-will between Korea and Japan, the article takes on new meaning. The author may have honestly thought the issue was an interesting piece of legal history that hasn’t been explored. He may not of envisioned the maelstrom that his article would create in the Korean press. He may be dismayed that it is not an article that brings nations closer together, but acts as a torch to fire up old and painful memories. He may not be aware of any of this pain and ill-will. But that is what it has done. It has served to fire up old animosity, distrust, and hatred of Japan.

It’s unfortunate. But this "Harvard" article has ricocheted all through the Korean media, and like a bullet ricocheting through flesh, it has reopened old wounds. When will Japan and all of its spokespersons quit justifying the war crimes of the early twentieth century and just say, "We’re sorry?"


Mark Peterson is professor emeritus at Brigham Young University, where he taught Korean studies for more than 30 years. Since retiring in 2018, he has run the YouTube channel "The Frog Outside the Well."


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